Apple Refreshes its Website, App Store Around Copy

For Apple, Inc., the annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is an opportunity to refresh its message to consumers and industry observers. At this year’s conference, which ran from June 5-9 in San Jose, CA, saw some pretty dramatic changes to Apple’s websites, emphasizing compelling copy as an integral design element.

For example, on the WWDC home page itself, copy literally takes center stage. Surrounded by graphic representations of people viewed from overhead, the center of the page features the following compelling mission statement:

Technology alone is not enough.
Technology must intersect with the liberal arts
and the humanities, to create new ideas and
experiences that push society forward. This
summer we bring together thousands of brilliant
minds representing many diverse perspectives,
passions, and talents to help us change the world.

The company’s main website has been revamped to feature copy. Take for example the page on business applications for iPad. Each section leads with a clean declarative sentence in large type, followed by two to three sentences that go into the particulars. In the past, Apple was content to let the visuals do all the talking. Now, the visuals and the copy support each other, reinforcing the message of the product’s value. From a design standpoint, Apple’s approach harkens back to the classic powerful prose-driven design of Ogilvy & Mather and Tom McElligott.

At WWDC, Apple revealed a redesign of its iOS app store that also places a new emphasis on content. As Six Colors’ Jason Snell writes, “No, this isn’t independent journalism—it’s curation and marketing. But it’s a sign that Apple sees the value in telling the stories of the apps it’s seen fit to highlight.”

As a style bellwether, Apple may be at the forefront of a renaissance of compelling copy-driven storytelling in marketing. Time will tell if nonprofits embrace the power of storytelling for persuading donors to support their mission.

Gains in Giving to Higher Education Offset by Decline in Individual Gifts in 2016, Survey Finds

© Alliance – Fotolia
Charitable gifts to America’s colleges and universities remained largely stagnant in 2016, in part due to the effects of a weak stock market on individual giving, according to the latest Voluntary Support of Education survey released earlier this week by the Council on Aid to Education (CAE). Although gifts from individual donors, corporations, foundations, and others reached $41 billion — $10 billion more than in 2012 — a rise in the inflation rate eliminated most of that gain.

Gifts from individual donors and alumni declined in 2016. Gifts from alumni dropped 8.5 percent, while gifts from non-alumni individuals dipped 6 percent. This decline was enough to nearly offset significant increases in giving by corporations ($6.6 billion, up 13.3 percent from 2015) and foundations ($12.5 billion, up 6 percent).

The effect of stock market performance on giving to education is so pronounced because gifts from individual donors and alumni are by far the largest source of charitable donations — representing 42.5 percent (nearly $19 billion) in 2016. These percentages vary from year to year, but the proportions have remained relatively constant since the 2008 recession.

Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), which sponsors the annual Voluntary Support of Education survey, hailed the increase in giving by foundations and corporations as “a sign of the growing understanding between these entities and campuses across the country regarding how they can work together to advance similar goals.” Cunningham also counseled that while individual giving declined in 2016, it is still up nearly 7 percent over just two years earlier.

“Similarly, some closely held companies and donor-advised funds are used by individuals to fund their personal philanthropic intentions,” Cunningham explained, noting that had those gifts been tallied in the individual-giving category, individual giving in 2016 would have increased by 10.9 percent.

Over 600 colleges and universities participated in the 2016 Voluntary Support of Education survey , the authoritative source for data and trends on private giving to colleges and universities in the United States. CAE made the official survey results available for purchase on February 7.

Reimagining the Computer Keyboard

© Sergey – Fotolia
At a special event in October announcing Apple’s latest MacBook Pro lineup, SVP Phil Schiller introduced the new Touch Bar feature by explaining that it was designed to provide a dynamic and adaptive replacement for the row of physical function keys that has accompanied computer keyboards since the early 1970s. Why, he asked, should interface design be constrained by the legacy of a 45-year-old technology?

Yet, just to the south of the new Touch Bar on this sleek, ultra-modern device sits a nearly 145-year-old technology that continues to artificially constrain computer interface design — one that I believe is way overdue for a radical reimagining:

The physical keyboard.

You’d probably think that, as a guy who makes his living herding words, I’d be the one yelling the loudest that you can have my keyboard when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. But before I can explain why I believe the future of writing absolutely demands the disappearance of the physical keyboard, first I need to go off on a highly pedantic tangent for just a moment.
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Celebrating “The Power of Connection” at CSM’s Sixth Annual Nonprofit Institute Conference

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the sixth annual conference of the Nonprofit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata. I didn’t do a head count, but I’m guessing that around 150 people representing charitable organizations from the three counties of southern Maryland, along with representatives from private and public institutions that support them, attended. The mood was lively, the venue was terrific, the programming was valuable, and the networking opportunities were legion. The perfect recipe for a great conference.

The programming was worthy of the setting. The conference had fifteen sessions divided into tracks for marketing, fundraising, management, strategic planning, and leadership, followed by “TED Talk” style presentations from three local nonprofits sharing their innovative best practices for connecting with their communities. I attended sessions on strategic planning, sustainability, and social media ROI, and took lots of notes (and was not surprised to see lots of people doing likewise).

Launched just five years ago, the Nonprofit Institute serves as a central clearinghouse of information and resources for the estimated 1,000-plus small- and medium-size nonprofits in Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary’s counties, which are located far — both geographically and psychologically — from the state’s center of political and financial gravity in Annapolis. The institute receives funding from all three both county governments as well as administrative and logistical support from the college. In addition to the annual conference, it offers seminars, in-person and web-based workshops, and training.

(Interesting fact: the institute estimates that, altogether, the nonprofit sector in southern Maryland employs over 6,000 people, making it the second-largest employer in the region.)

I’m glad to know that there is such a terrific resource available so close to my new base of operations. I’m looking forward to getting to know the institute and, through it, the local nonprofit scene. If the conference is any indication, it’s a warm, welcoming, and deeply talent-rich environment.

(Correction: the Nonprofit Institute is supported by Charles and St. Mary’s counties. Active Voice regrets the error.)

Steve Jobs on Creating a Culture of Excellence

In fundraising, a lot has been written about the importance of creating a culture of philanthropy in your organization. Along with that, it seems to me, nonprofits also need to create a culture of excellence that motivates and inspires people to set higher standards for themselves and their organization.

Here’s how Apple co-founder, chair, and CEO Steve Jobs described it:

“If [employees] are working in an environment where excellence is expected, then they will do excellent work without anything but self-motivation. I’m talking about an environment in which excellence is noticed and respected and is in the culture. If you have that, you don’t have to tell people to do excellent work. They understand it from their surroundings.”

Nonprofits Can Build Risk Tolerance By Permitting Failure

Question markThe following post is adapted from “What’s After Next?: How Innovative Chief Executives Use Entrepreneurial Techniques to Lead and Motivate Their Staff and Volunteers to Succeed,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Winter 2016 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Hybrid nonprofits—organizations that blend business management principles with mission-driven social outcomes—are a natural fit for energetic, visionary leaders. Their emphases on accountability, transparency, and measurable outcomes are in sync with today’s business-savvy, data-driven donors who are more likely to view their gifts as social investments. And increasingly, business leaders are encouraged to join nonprofit boards as much, if not more, for their fiscal and managerial acumen as for their wealth and connections. Successful leadership of hybrid organizations requires executives to possess a different suite of skills than they were required to have just a few decades ago, and that can be a challenge for even the most visionary leader.

One of the most important requisite skills for an entrepreneurial leader, and one of the most important concerns raised about hybrid nonprofits, is a tolerance for risk. Investors give their money to for-profit companies knowing that the venture may fail and that they may not see a return on their investment. Donors, on the other hand, have traditionally given their money to nonprofits with the expectation that their gift will see a return—not for them personally, but for the program they have chosen to support and, by extension, the community at large. Is it therefore unethical for a nonprofit to take risks?

“Probably one of the most important things for a leader to do in order to encourage risk taking is to allow people to fail,” says Lisa Petrides, Ph.D., CEO and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (www.iskme.org), a nonprofit research organization in Half Moon Bay, California, that supports the development of innovative teaching and learning practices through continuous learning and collaboration. Petrides calls it the “WD-40® approach,” after the popular lubricating and water-displacing spray whose name refers to it having been the 40th attempt at a successful product. “They embraced their failures,” Petrides observes. “They built the story of their failure into the success.”

Similarly, Petrides argues, entrepreneurial nonprofit CEOs should encourage a culture of risk and accountability throughout their organizations. Accountability is important. Leaders must still be able to demonstrate impact to donors, as they always have done. With sound metrics in place, an organization can use the outcomes of both its successes and its failures. “Metrics have to have built into them enough flexibility to encourage learning from your mistakes,” says Petrides, who credits the approach with sustaining the organization through the recession, as well as through a shift to create a sustainable business model for the nonprofit. “Successful or not, I always ask, ‘What worked, what didn’t work, and what have we learned because of it?” she says.

Rethinking the Ask

Community support and helping  children concept with shadows of a group of extended adult hands offering help or therapy to a child in need as an education symbol of social responsibility for needy kids and teacher guidance to students who need extra care.I’ve been writing about the nonprofit sector for fifteen years. In that time, I’ve covered everything from best practices in event planning to the effects of mobile communications on our ability to decipher nonverbal cues. Recently, whenever I’ve written about some aspect of donor behavior, I’ve noticed a common thread. Consider, for example, the following trends:

  • In the UK, lawmakers have responded to the public outcry over “aggressive” and “invasive” fundraising practices by calling for increased regulatory oversight of nonprofits.
  • Donors are giving more money to fewer charities, and are doing a lot more research before making their gifts.
  • Survey after survey reports that donors feel oversolicited, even by the causes they believe in.
  • Donors are increasingly insisting on having “a seat at the table” in determining how their gifts are used, and expect personalized, tailored interactions with the organizations they support.
  • Donors expect nonprofits to be able to quantifiably demonstrate the effects and outcomes of their gifts.
  • Donors increasingly are turning to third-party wealth-management vehicles, such as donor-advised funds and private foundations, that allow them to manage the disbursement of their funds.

The common element in these trends is that more and more, it is the donors, and not the fundraisers, who are setting the terms of engagement with nonprofits. This is a significant, but not wholly unpredictable, change in the fundraising dynamic.

The ubiquity of mobile devices has enabled us to take unprecedented control over the details of our lives. Apps have allowed us to “game” the way we drive, the temperature of our homes, and even our health, in turn providing us with an endless stream of data and feedback with which to interact. We’ve quickly become used to the idea of being in charge. The goal of technological intermediaries, such as smartphones and smart watches, is to give us timely information that’s easy to understand and act on.

So perhaps it’s only natural that we are coming to expect the same from our physical intermediaries, like fundraisers.

I predict that over the next decade and beyond, these and other similar trends in donor behavior will radically redefine the basic unit of fundraising: the ask. It’s my belief that eventually, instead of fundraisers asking donors for help, it will be donors who ask fundraisers how they can help.

And as that day draws closer, the most frequently asked question by fundraisers will be, How can we get our donors to make the ask?

This dramatic shift will require fundraisers to play a different role than the one they’re used to playing. Instead of asking, fundraisers will be answering. Instead of persuading donors to make a gift, fundraisers will be persuading donors to want to make a gift.

That may sound like semantic hair-splitting, but a veteran salesperson will tell you that there’s a world of difference between asking someone to give you money and persuading that person to ask you to take their money. It requires a whole different approach to communicating with donors.

In upcoming blog posts and articles, I hope to explore this idea and its implications, and start finding some answers to the question. I invite you to offer your thoughts as well, so that we can start setting the terms of the discussion in these earliest days.

Image: iStockPhoto.com

E-Newsletters: How Wide Do You Go?

I write e-newsletters and e-mail news blasts for several clients (see, for example, here). Like most e-newsletters, they’re designed to be read in an e-mail app (or, for people who use web-based e-mail, a browser) along with an identical web-based version for people whose e-mail apps can’t handle html.

Most use customized templates offered by the big mailing services (MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc.) But one of my clients handles the mailing in-house, which requires me to use a custom html template that I prepared. Originally, the template had a fixed width of 600px (the width of the masthead graphic).

While working on the latest issue, I started thinking about the limitations of the fixed-width approach in today’s online-centric environment. In the old days, all you had to worry about was different monitor widths. Now, you also have to factor in web browsers and RSS readers, which is where more and more of us are reading our messages — not to mention the burgeoning mobile sphere, which has to fit everything into notecard-sized screens or thereabouts.

I see two problems with using a narrow fixed-width design for this particular newsletter:
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Tips for Writing a Gift Policy

TrustThe following post is adapted from “Put Your Money in Trust: How a Gift-Acceptance Policy Can Guide Your Fundraising, Reduce Your Risk, and Help Steward Your Donors,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, v18n3, May-June 2011 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Developing a truly helpful gift acceptance policy involves more than simply downloading a template from the Web and filling in the name of your organization at the top, although an organization doesn’t have to begin from scratch, either. A tailored policy reflects a consensus among not only the executive leadership and board members with financial and tax expertise, but also the development staff and volunteers who will have to implement the policy, says Katherine Swank, J.D., a senior consultant for Blackbaud Analytics in Charleston, S.C. Because of the importance of achieving that consensus, it’s not uncommon for the policy-development process to take 18 months or longer.

Swank says the policy-development team should focus on answering some key questions up front:

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Value-Added Writing

I’ll be hosting a panel session on “What Editors Look For in Freelancers” at the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Conference on April 2. One of my panelists will be Tam Harbert, an award-winning journalist who covers technology, business, and government beats. My introduction to Tam was her post on the ASBPE blog, “Freelance Work Worth Paying For,” in which she argues — and demonstrates convincingly — that writing is more than simply stringing words together. When editors hire writers, they are also paying for the ability to provide them with what they want (even when they’re not sure what that is); subject-matter expertise; the ability to present the story in an appropriate and compelling way; critical thinking skills that have been honed from experience; persistence and doggedness in order to get to the real story; and the ability to deliver everything on time.

In an age when “content farms” are busy driving down the rates that many writers can charge for their work — to say nothing of what they’re doing to the quality of information available to people who need it — it’s good for writers to remind ourselves that we offer our clients more than just good grammar. Professional writers bring a broad suite of skills to bear on solving their clients’ word problems. We answer the essential questions:

  • What questions do your readers have?
  • Where are the most accurate and reliable answers going to be found?
  • What’s the best way to present those answers to your readers?

By the time I finished reading the post, I knew I needed Tam on my panel, and I’m pleased that she accepted the invitation. Once you read her piece, I think you’ll understand why too. And if you’re planning to attend this year’s Maryland Writers’ Conference, I hope you’ll consider attending my session and hearing it right from the source.